attackfish: Jet and Zuko fighting in the teashop, text "Obviously this is the place to come if you want to get murdered by lunatics" (Jet Juko TDL quote)
[personal profile] attackfish
Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: the Last Airbender. If I did, it would be one long angstfest and you know it.

Summary: Zuko sorts through the wreckage of his childhood and comes across a doll given to his sister.

Author's Note: It's been a while since I wrote a fic just because. Feels good.

Empty Bodies, Empty Smiles

It wasn't long after the coronation, or the battle that preceded it, that he found her headless wooden body, and for a few brief moments, he contemplated giving her a proper cremation. His own body still throbbed with the force of his sister's lightning. Fiery sparks of pain ran through him every time he breathed along the pathways she had carved. He could see the looks on the faces of his court when he winced and faltered. What his uncle had sought to prevent by sending Zuko to claim the throne had come to pass anyway. Brother fought sister for the crown, and took it from her when he won. That was what the people of his homeland saw when they looked at him, and cast their eyes on the wounds he had earned fighting for their freedom.

He tucked doll his, their, uncle had given Azula, head burned away, body blackened, surviving remnants of her green dress streaked with soot and ash, away in the pocket of his robe and examined the box he had found her in. She had lain, buried in old clothes, the ceremonial mourning clothes he had worn to his father's coronation. She had left black smudges all over the gleaming white silk. The palace servants had put her there for the Firelord's personal servants to deal with, rather than risk disposing of her and angering their new ruler.

The Firelord's chamber, hastily cleared of his father's possessions, stood crowded with dozens of such boxes from Zuko's old rooms, all filled with the remnants of his childhood and his memories. With a sudden stab of sheepish horror, he wondered if the palace servants had found the rest of Azula's stolen dolls. His feet carried him down the corridors, back to his old rooms. He stood in front of the door, a strange and discomforting feeling of loss surging through him. With a glance around at the empty corridor, he pushed his way in.

It had seemed so big, when he had been first allowed his own rooms, big and empty and echoing, and too much. And now it was even emptier. The enormous bed, stripped of its blankets, mattress and pillows, stood skeletal and alone, the only thing left in the entire room. In Sozin's day and for hundreds of years previous, these rooms had housed the Firelord, the grandest suite in the grandest palace in all the islands for a man who dreamed of being the mightiest ruler in the world. Then, Azulon had built grander halls, with grander rooms, and these ones had been relegated to the son of the Firelord's second son, a distant contender for his great grandfather's throne.

And then, Lu Ten had died, and the world had tilted on its axis, and when it had righted itself, Ozai was the Firelord, and Zuko was his firstborn. The servants had come to move him into his uncle's old rooms, and he had screamed his refusal, and slept on the bare floor of his room for four nights in a row before they moved everything back and gave Azula the crown prince's chambers instead. Their uncle was moved into Lu Ten's old rooms, and Zuko was left alone. So much politics, he thought, contained in where someone slept, even when they slept alone. And now he was the Firelord.

After the battle, they had put him in his uncle's rooms, in Lu Ten's old rooms. He wondered if his uncle had anything to do with that somehow.

Shaking off his musings, Zuko strode across the room to the far wall, and gently tapped against it until he found the part that rang hollow. Then, he moved just to the right of it and pushed that panel back, and then slid it into the hollow panel. A cloud of dust rose up. It was untouched. The servants hadn't found it.

Before Azulon's building spree, it had been a secret escape passage for the Firelord. Now, it was a strange malformed little triangle, walled off on one end. Zuko had never been gladder that he had discovered this place after he knew what Azula was like, and so had never shared it with her, or with anyone else. On the floor against the back wall, under a pile of dust sat in inlaid wooden box, stolen from some out of the way corner of the palace. Coughing, Zuko dusted the lid off and picked it up. He remembered when he was little having to drag it across the floor.

With a jolt, he realized as he slid the panel closed and pulled it back into place beside its fellows, that he was leaving that little secret room for probably the very last time. He turned that over in his mind to see how it felt.

When he picked up the box again, his chest felt as if there were cinders inside of it, and his breath hissed out of him. He let it bear him down to the floor, and sank to his knees, ready to push it along like he had when he had been to small to lift it instead of too injured. And a moment later, he rolled his eyes at his own foolishness and called for a porter. There was no need to sneak around anymore like a second prince's unwanted firstborn son.

The porter carried the box to the firelord's chambers as Zuko led the way, pausing as the firelord leaned against the wall, sweating and weak, to rest. Once the box was safely in his new rooms, Zuko dismissed the porter with a wave of his hand and opened the lid.

Faces stared back at him.

On Ember Island, Sokka had told them all about the time he got stuck gutting fish for a week after he stole Katara's doll. Katara had teased him a little about wanting a doll, and Zuko had asked why Sokka didn't have one in the first place. They had all given him that look, like they couldn't figure out what to do with him again. Sokka laughed it off, telling him that he didn't want the doll, he wanted to annoy his sister, but then Toph asked, snidely if he had dolls as a kid. He shook his head. No one had given him a doll since the day Azula figured out she could set fire to them and make her brother cry.

It was surreal, listening to Sokka's story and remembering how he had stolen Azula's dolls. One more memory of his that was almost, but not quite, like everyone else's.

He cradled each of Azula's dolls, rescued and mended as well as he had been able to all those years ago, and laid them gently on the floor until the box was empty. Their faces gazed back at them, smiling gently in spite of their wounds, close to twenty of them, battered hidden away, to protect them from his sister. There was a soldier with her arms twisted off, a circus ringmaster with her hair hacked and burned away, a fisherman with fingerprint burns all over his body, an archer with his cheek burned clean through. Zuko pressed his finger to the burned and jagged edge of the scar, and then to his own.

Before she had gotten real people for toys, Mai, and Ty Lee, and after their mother left, Zuko, Azula had loved playing with her dolls, deciding what they would say and do, ruling them absolutely. But even lifeless wood, clay, and cloth couldn't meet her exacting standards of obedience, and she punished them accordingly.

Zuko wondered if Azula knew it was Zuko who spirited them away after, or if she had just assumed that was what happened to broken dolls.

There was one last doll, and Zuko flinched as he picked her up, his face growing wet. She was perfect, unblemished, her hair neat, her robe crisp. This one had been Azula's favorite, because she wore their mother's face. She used to told her, and talk to her, and make her answer back the way she wanted her to instead of the way their mother did. She used to tell their mother that she loved the doll better than the real her, and smiled at their mother's distress.

This doll alone, Zuko had rescued in time, and Azula had searched everywhere for her, and screamed at the servants, while Zuko hid her away never to be found.

After their mom left, he used to sit in the secret passage and hug the Ursa doll tight and imagine she was the real thing.

Slowly, he turned back to the other dolls, and stripped off the makeshift bandages he had made for them as a child. He set the Earth Kingdom doll down with them, threw the scraps of bandages away, and stared at the dolls and their faces for a long, long time, just trying to figure out what to do with them now.

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attackfish: Yshre girl wearing a kippah, text "Attackfish" (Default)

October 2017


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